Ten Tragic Tales of Childhood TV Stars

The death of Gary Coleman has saddened many who remember the comedy timing of this pint sized actor. The last year has also seen the suicide of Growing Pain's actor Andrew Koenig and the death of beloved 80s star Corey Haim. Haim's death was not as shocking since the world had watched him suffer through years of drug abuse and bad decisions. What drives these young stars to begin a downward spiral from which many cannot recover? Coleman, Koenig and Haim are just a few in a seemingly endless parade of former child stars that cannot seem to survive and thrive into adulthood. A look into the lives of ten tragic tales of childhood tv stars includes many household names and similar tales of woe.

Gary Coleman

More than any other child star, Gary Coleman could be the poster-child for tragic post-childhood acting careers. This chubby cheeked youngster with the impeccable comic timing took American by storm in the 80s on the hit TV show "Different Strokes". As Arnold, his rag-to-riches tale spun a national catchphrase which to this day still have people asking "Whatchoo talkin' bout, Willis?".

Even during the height of his fame, Coleman was having issues. His parents were allegedly squandering his trust fund and Coleman had to sue them in 1989. He won a judgment in 1993, but was declaring bankruptcy by 1999. A series of odd jobs made him tabloid fodder, especially his short-lived career as a security guard. More recently, the unexpected marriage to wife Shannon Price led to arrests and court appearances for domestic violence issues. His recent expletive filled rant on "The Insider" and demonic mug shot became internet sensations. Recent acting work was sporadic and Coleman passed away quickly and unexpectedly at the young age of 42 in May of 2010.

Jay North on the cover of TV Guide
Jay North on the cover of TV Guide

Jay North

During his brief career as beloved mischief maker Dennis the Menace, North has declared the real trouble makers were his family.  Personally hand picked for the lead role in the TV series by cartoon comic artist Hank Ketchum, North personified Dennis to thousands of TV viewers each week.  His aunt and uncle were on the set to help him at all times and North has repeatedly stated that he was slapped, punched and kicked by his aunt and uncle when he didn't meet expectations.  He has further said that this was sometimes done in full view of other cast members and no one rose to his side. North never told his parents about the abuse until years later.

North's post-Dennis career has been filled with drugs and bitterness.  He finally found solace in working with former Donna Reed star Paul Peterson in the child activist group A Minor Consideration which helps bring abuses in the industry to light.  At last report, North was working as a prison guard in Florida.

Danny Bonaduce

The wise-cracking young star of the Partridge Family quickly became a fan favorite.  With a knack for one liners and an infectious smile, the red-headed wunderkind seemed destined for greatness.  Life for Danny after the end of the family sitcom went sour quickly.  The carefree persona on screen was holding in years of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his father.  Acting roles were sporadic with little following his stint with Mark Hamill in Corvette Summer in 1978.  By the late 80s, Bonaduce was tabloid fodder from various drug related incidences and reached a new low after an altercation with a transvestite.  Since that time and after a few marriages, Danny has transformed himself both physically and mentally.  He has overcome his early problems to be a successful radio host and still acts occasionally.

Dana Plato

The curse of "Different Strokes" reached beyond Coleman and also left his co-star's life in ruins. Dana Plato played sister Kimberly Drummond, but her wholesome persona portrayed on the family sitcom could hardly be further from the real life situations Plato was experiencing. At the age of 21, Plato became pregnant and was written out of the show. Rumors of drug use on the set had already been circulating by this time as well. Plato found her typecast image as goody-goody Kimberly affected her ability to land other work and quickly began reshaping her body and career into a new direction.

The mid 80s found Kimberly with new breast implants and a much discussed appearance in Playboy magazine in 1990. She drifted into B-movie roles and by the end of her career began making what can be described as "adult movies". Her life hit a new low when in 1991 she attempted to rob a video store. She was quickly arrested, but was only given probation. In 1992 she was arrested for prescription forgery and served thirty days. Random Howard Stern appearances and repeated comebacks were attempted up until her untimely death from a drug overdose in 1999 while living in an RV with her fiance.

Mackenzie Phillips

While many childhood stars have straightened out and turned their lives around, for others the past just keeps haunting them. Mackenzie Phillips recently released another shocking book High On Arrival with tales of an incestuous relationship with her famous dad John Phillips former singer for the Mamas and the Papas.

A promising career began with a role in American Graffiti which led to her successful audition in the comedy One Day At A Time. Drug and alcohol abuse caused her to be fired from the show after one failed rehab stint. Phillips would struggle with drugs for the next two decades with very few acting roles coming her way. Recent interviews have raised her stock as Phillips seems to finally be coming to terms with past demons.

Drew Barrymore

Drew seemed destined to be an actress from birth.  From the famous Barrymore family, the world was her oyster.  She landed a TV commercial at only eleven months old. Irrepressibly cute, the tiny co-star of E.T. the Extra Terrestrial captured the hearts of the entire world.  Fame was not easy for Drew and by the time she was thirteen she was smoking cigarettes and marijuana, drinking and snorting cocaine.  She was in rehab twice by the age of 15.  What would have been an easy road to a life of partying and drugs was turned around.  Normally playing the comedic love interest, Drew has re-invented herself i recent years as a serious actress nominated for multiple awards for roles such as Edith Beale in the movie Gray Gardens.

Tatum O'Neal

The youngest Academy Award winner of all time, O'Neal was only 10 when she was honored for her fantastic portrayal of a conman's daughter in Paper Moon.  This was to be the high point in Tatum's life for a number of years.  Caught up in the world of childhood acting, O'Neal fell in with drugs and alcohol.  She has attributed her drug use to abuse at the hands of her father and a family friend and her inability to deal with fame.  Her life seemed on track with her marriage to explosive tennis star John McEnroe in the mid 80s.  Once they divorced though her addiction to heroin re-emerged.  In recent years, O'Neal has revived her acting career with numerous roles on such popular shoes as Sex and The City and Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

Olsen Twins

With a personal net worth greater than the GDP of many small nations, the Olsen Twins have had their brushes with the the same fates that have befallen many childhood actors.  The same wealth and fame trappings has not stopped the twins from building a corporate empire, but has also not left them immune either.  Mary Kate has been admitted to rehab for anorexia and was also involved with Heath Ledger during his final days.  Ashley has been tabloid fodder as well and been accused to drugs, drinking and general debauchery. Still only in their early 20s and with acting roles almost non-existent, it will be interesting to see how the girls cope with life beyond childhood stardom.

Melissa Gilbert

As darling "Half Pint" on Little House on the Prairie, Gilbert's portrayal of tomboy Laura Ingalls made her a household name.  While the simple homespun image was easily carried on-screen, in her latest biography, Ingalls tells of drug use and sexual escapades with other trouble teen actors most notably Rob Lowe.   Well documented for his own bad behavior, this codependent relationship would carry on for years leading to a very unhealthy relationship.  She was also acting as an anti-drug spokesperson for a Nancy Reagan program while continuing to use herself.  Gilbert has straightened her life out and became president of the Screen Actor's Guild and continues to act with regularity.

Judy Garland

The road to Oz was a long and winding one for Judy Garland.  Born Frances Gumm, she was performing with her family as soon as she could walk.  Eventually relocating to Hollywood, Garland was successful in landing wholesome roles as the girl next door.  Plagued by doubt about her looks and worried about weight problems, Garland allowed herself to be plied with drugs to help her perform.  This would lead to a lifetime of battle with addiction to drugs and alcohol and to her eventual death from an accidental overdose at the young age of 47. 

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2 comments

Silver Poet profile image

Silver Poet 6 years ago from the computer of a midwestern American writer

Excellent outlines of the lives of various child stars. Could you do one on Shirley Temple sometime?


Seakay profile image

Seakay 6 years ago from Florida

Great read.... but very sad. Makes me happy to be me and NOT famous!

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